Eusebius lashes out

09 Mar

Devoted readers may remember my next to last post, on Apollonius of Tyana and the biography of him written by Philostratus of Athens, as it was translated in a parallel text edition in three volumes.

The first two volumes were devoted to the biography, written a few centuries after Apollonius’ death, always assuming he was a real person. As readers of the post on this may remember, I was pretty disappointed by the failure of the biography to reveal much about philosophy though it had its moments, and had other sorts of interest.

The third and final volume is much different. It consists of letters by the great man, “testimonia” – writings about him, which often were mere scraps, asides in works about something else – ending with a scathing attack both on Apollonius and Philostratus by one Eusebius. This concluding section is by far the longest and also the most interesting of the volume.

Eusebius was unknown to me, ignorant alleged human. It turns out* he was a big deal at the time Christianity got its spurs and began to ride hard over all objectors to become first co-extensive with the Roman Empire, and then to dominate Europe for a very, very long time. This man grew up in Caesarea Maritima, a town in what is now Israel that at the time had a huge population, perhaps has many as 100,000.* * He was in the shadow of one of the greatest and most learned of the early  Christians, Origen, who settled in the place and whose book collection/library formed the basis of Eusbius’ work. Eusebius himself lived through the great persecutions by  Diocletian and his ilk to witness the triumph of Christianity through Constantine’s Edict of Toleration (of Christians) which quickly developed into a toleration of only Christians, and not all of those. He was a trusted adviser of the emperor and more, and wrote a biography of him. He also wrote commentaries on the gospels, a history of the early church, and a gazetteer of the places in the holy scriptures.

To say that Eusebius was combative was a mild way of putting things. Origen, his philosophical mentor – they never met, and he was schooled by a follower of Origen named Pamphilus – was immensely learned, and peppered his writings with references to pagan literature, in particular quotations from Plato. Eusebius too used quotations from the pagans to buttress his arguments, but he went a lot further in pressing his aim of converting the globe to Christian faith. It might be necessary, he wrote, to lie to help them along. It might be useful to pass over the imperfections of the early Christian fathers when discussing their martyrdoms. He was, Burckhardt wrote, “the first thoroughly dishonest historian of antiquity”.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that while Origen retains an honoured place in intellectual history, and Augustine remains well-known beyond the confines of Christian history, Eusebius is largely forgotten in spite of a really, really energetic contribution to church literature.

His attack on Apollonius bears all the hallmarks of a degraded intellect. Some of his arguments are obviously right, while others amount to no more than willful corruption of the intent of Philostratus and/or Apollonius. He was determined to demolish both, and ended up failing to harm either: they did themselves in the eye, while Eusebius left me in the end more sympathetic to Apollonius than I had been when I began his dismissive account.

Eusebius also showed his version of Christianity somewhat at odds with what we think today. He believed, for example, in “familiar demons” and their abilities, and explained Apollonius’ “magic” or “sorcery” as the workings of his familiar demon (check wikipedia out for an explanation of this), managing, to our eyes, to do less than explain anything at all.

Eusebius’ intent was dishonest at source. He was attacking something much greater than Apollonius’ alleged sorcery. He was having a go at the pagans who were resisting Christianity, and there were a few of them. As Christianity grew in strength and Christians in number, pagan intellectuals had begun to resist. Porphyry’s attack Against the Christians is the most famous, and after the triumph of Christianity, it was banned. Porphyry had been a student of Plotinus, and had edited his lectures, and had written on his own account texts on logic and other philosophical subjects. Like Plotinus he was a real philosopher, and was so far outside the class of a mediocre intelligence like Eusebius or Philostratus that it would have been impossible for the churchman to have joined him in intellectual combat, so he chose an easy target, but missed: a hunter who sees his quarry in the telescopic sight of his rifle, only to sneeze as he pulls the trigger.

Eusebius is a useful if minor figure in an intellectual landscape teeming with ideas and debate, and dispute. The great tragedy came not long after, when Christians shut down competing philosophical schools, dispersed their libraries, burnt their books, a great group of proto-Nazis. It took nearly a thousand years for the discarded shreds of their victims’ learning to again push out boats into Europe’s intellectual currents.

All the same, reading Philostratus, and Eusebius, and the meagre scraps of others’ writings about the odd fellow named Apollonius was for me quite an adventure, new territory in a continent I have always visited with pleasure and for intellectual profit. Perhaps I should dip into Plotinus again…tough going, good bedtime reading for insomniacs, but persistence repays the effort. Plotinus made an appearance in my second (and first published) novel, Evilheart. He could stop in again.

* Wikipedia is just fine on Eusebius

**The place is almost abandoned now.

1 Comment

Posted by on March 9, 2013 in Uncategorized


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One response to “Eusebius lashes out

  1. Joleene Naylor

    April 2, 2013 at 1:53 am

    I am reading backwards so have not read the other two you mention yet. Interesting post – I have never heard of the fellow either. He makes me think of Paul, though. Lie a little to help them along.


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